Sunday, April 13, 2014

Special Guest Star: Richard Donner

Photo courtesy of Evelyn Carter-Miramontes
Take a gander at these two precocious young 'uns. Ain't they sweet? No, they're not on a blind date. She could do better than him and he looks like he just chugged a bottle of Boone's Farm. Actually, they're extras on the set of the TV film SENIOR YEAR, shot in Stockton CA wayyyyyy back in the winter of 1974. The cutie pie on the right is Evelyn Carter-Miramontes who generously granted her permission to use this photo after she brought it to my attention and uncorked a geyser of memories. Of course, that jughead in the pea coat on the left is someone we all know and love...lil' ol' me.

Evelyn and I joined a bunch of our fellow drama students from AA Stagg High School-even those of us like me who had already graduated- at a casting call for SENIOR YEAR held at the Stockton Holiday Inn. It was there that we learned that this film was to be a Universal Studios production produced by David Levinson and directed by Richard Donner.

Two year before his breakout success with THE OMEN (which, of course, eventually led to SUPERMAN and LETHAL WEAPON), Donner had been primarily an episodic TV director of some note since 1960. His impressive list of credits include such iconic shows as THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., PERRY MASON, GET SMART, THE FUGITIVE, THE WILD WILD WEST and even the pilot episode of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND. His early film work is noteworthy only for their casts: Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford (SALT AND PEPPER) and Charles Bronson (LOLA). The latter does have a very icky plot, not your typical Bronson movie. Check it out on IMDB.
LOLA w/Charles Bronson

SENIOR YEAR was a dramatic TV pilot attempting to cash in on the phenomenal success of George Lucas' AMERICAN GRAFITTI, released by Universal the year before. While the time setting was earlier in the 1950s, similarities were oh so obvious. One character named Moose played by Barry Livingstone (Ernie on MY THREE SONS) could have been the twin brother of GRAFITTI Terry the Toad immortalized by Charles Martin Smith. Also starring were Gary Frank, who later went on to FAMILY, Glynnis O'Connor of ODE TO BILLY JOE and BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE, Scott Colomby (PORKY'S) and Debralee Scott (MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN and the "Ain't he neat?" girlfriend of Harrison Ford in GRAFITTI)  

Since this was a period piece, I got my hair cut to fit the era or so I thought. The night we shot downtown on Main Street, a roly-poly blow hard of an assistant director whose name I distinctly remember as Bob Bender pulled me from a shot walking out of the Fox California Theater as the movie let out. He claimed my hair wasn't short enough.

Pissed because I missed the shot, I waited impatiently as a hair and makeup assistant was summoned to chop off some more locks. However, this absolute knockout named Sandra (pronounced Saundra making her ever more exotic in my eyes and thighs) arrived to save the day and fix my do into fighting shape. Suddenly I didn't mind so much. Sandra worked in silence as 19 year old me went numb. I resisted the urge to speak myself, fearing that anything coming out of my mouth would be blather to the nth degree."Uh, this your first time in Stockton?"

At that point, Richard Donner, looking like a hybrid of John Frankenheimer and Gardner McKay, strode by behind my chair, stopping dead in his tracks to admire Sandra's handiwork.

"Boy, I'd like to get those hands in a card game," he told Sandra ever so slyly, then strolled away.

I swear I could feel this cool cookie melt at his words. Damn, if Dickie Donner didn't charm the pants off  of her. At least I think so. I didn't lean over to check or Sandra might have snipped one of my ears off. 

Observing him on set, Donner appeared to be the consummate professional and very gregarious to the cast, crew and even us lowly extras. I only saw him lose his cool once. At one point, good ol' Assistant Director Bob Bender became over zealous with his megaphone, blasting it right beside Donner's left ear. This caused him to jump, then spin about angrily to confiscate the offending megaphone for the rest of the day.

The same night at the Fox, I had walked through the lobby where the letters for the marquee were laid out on the floor, spelling out the name of the feature playing at the Fox in the movie. It read: James Dean in EAST OF EADEN. I leaned down and removed the offending A from EDEN. Yes, I saved the production. You're welcome, Universal.

Fortunately, I only missed participating in one shot. That night at the Fox, my mad atmospheric skills were utilized in other set-ups in the same area as well as other scenes that same week set in my old stomping grounds at Stockton Junior High, upgraded to senior high status for the film. Then came my grand finale the following week.

At the extras casting call, I was asked if I could ice skate. Like a naive dope, I answer in the negative. After all, I really hated ice skating, trying it once and pretty much trashed my ankles trying to at least stand erect. I wobbled like a newborn calf. But anyone trying to break into show biz like I wanted to has to frigging LIE their asses off and agree to do anything that's thrown their way.
"Ever ride a horse?"
"Can you fence?"
"You bet!"
"How would you feel about being set on fire?"
"Got a match?"

Not this sissymannunu. I've always been honest to a fault and the fault is always mine. So when the ice skating question arose, I said nah. But there's a very reason for my answer. I don't want anything on my feet other than shoes and socks-and even those can be an issue. This means no blades, no wheels, no long strips of wood or fiberglass AKA skis. As Dirty Harry says, "A man's got to know his limitations". For me, this includes the law of gravity.

However...that second week of shooting, I was called to another location for an all-nighter, this time in Lodi. I'll be damned if it hadn't been at the old roller skating rink on Cherokee Lane. Now they must want me as a spectator, right? Nope. You're gonna have wheels on your shoes, dude. But what the hell was I going to do-back out? Hell to the no and back again. I had to reach down deep and overcome my fear of probable injury and cripplelization. This was the sacrifice I was willing to make. In fact, it was make it or break it. Hmm...I didn't like the sound of that...

The result? It went just as I predicted. As soon as the skates were on, I was down. All night long. I must have lasted a full five seconds at one point and that was my personal best. I was a hit with the crew. The grips in particular got a great big kick out of me. In fact, they gave me an endearing nickname.



The humiliation did not get me down. I persevered especially when one of the extras told me at the dinner break that he overheard Donner tell cinematographer Jack Woolf to follow me with the camera the best that he could, a dicey proposition at best given the unpredictability of my lack of balance. I actually began to think this might be my ticket on the Rocket to Stardom and to think I didn't to put anything my footsies. Putz! The bruises I would wear from that night would badges of glory.

The roller rink sequence involved a date between two of the main characters. In the key shot for the night, the two principals were to skate away from the camera as other patrons rolled by in the foreground. On cue, they were both fall on their asses, then laugh uproariously to end the scene.

I was chosen to be in the foreground, skating past the camera. Immediately, I knew I was doomed. Now if they truly were following me with the camera, they knew what I could do and what I could not do. What I could not do is fucking skate. Yet, there I was, full of piss and vinegar because I thought this would be my big splash. Unfortunately, that splash was probably caused by that same piss and vinegar. 

The foreground rolling extras were lined up, cued by good ol' Bob Bender.

"Start your background action!" came the direction from behind the camera.

My feet were slipping all over the place as I held on to the rail for balance as I waited my turn. I worked my way around as Bob send off the first skater, then a couple, then another. My number was finally up.

"Action!" Richard Donner called.

The two principals actors skated away from the camera. Bob Bender signaled me to go and off I went, feet first. My arms flailed about like a seagull on mescaline in a pitiful attempt to regain...what? Balance? Composure? Dignity? I made it as far as dead center of the action as I went down at the very same instant the two principals fell, the three of us landing in a resounding BOOM!

"CUT!!!!!!!!!" Donner demanded

From the floor I looked up to see the director with his head in his hands as I crept away to the other side of the rink, a whipped, defeated mutt who just peed on the rug. After a huddle with Donner, Bob Bender waddled over to inform me that I was wrapped for the rest of the evening. After another couple of days, the SENIOR YEAR location shooting is Stockton had wrapped as well, heading back to Hollywood, USA to finish up on the Universal lot.

SENIOR YEAR aired on CBS very soon after that. This was indeed a well-oiled machine for within a couple of months of post-production, it was all set to go. Still convinced I still had a shot at the Big Time once the world caught my roller skating antics, I sat inches from the set and scrutinized every detail I could, a difficult process since there was no chance of a replay of any kind in the ancient times before home video recording, something we believed only existed in science fiction. For the next hour and a half, I searched for any trace of myself. A glimpse here, part of me there. I anxiously waited for my big moment to arrive, footage of me when the camera supposedly followed me about. Finally, there it was, the roller rink scene. One shot remained, me wobbling. Actually, it was only one wobble. More like a wob. That was about it. And then it was over.

The TV movie did decently enough to justify the series that debuted in the fall, renamed the even blander title SONS AND DAUGHTERS. It tanked in the ratings and barely lasted two months on the air until it was cancelled, never to be seen or heard from again.  Another AMERICAN GRAFITTI rip-off fared better on ABC that same season, a sit-com named HAPPY DAYS.

Richard Donner naturally went to bigger and better things in the next few years, finally retiring from behind the cameras after the Bruce Willis actioner 16 BLOCKS. I've always got an odd sense of pride seeing where his career took him. When his credit appears on screen, I still smile in recognition. "Hey, I worked on one of his films." It was on my resume for years:

DIRECTOR: Richard Donner  

You know, if things worked out differently, I could have been a GOONIE. I got close. I do live in Oregon.


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